Thoughts: Lake Pontchartrain

Image: Cynthia Via
Image: Cynthia Via

I had saved these last pages for the sea. I thought I would fill them when I stared out to Lake Pontchartrain. Instead I’m writing on my green desk; outside night is claiming day, and the sun has let the gray concrete cool off.

Girl with Doll

Image: Cynthia Via
Le Pavilion Hotel | Image: Cynthia Via

I left a photograph, titled Girl with Doll bookmarked on my browser, and I looked at it with new eyes. (Found in  Lens: The New York Time Focusing on Prison Photography.)

The photo, taken by Steve Davis, shows an inmate in an orange jumpsuit holding a doll with missing arms and legs. The doll, which looks more like a statue, is being held by a black girl. And it’s odd writing inmate if she is indeed a young person. Her nails are painted a bright sea-blue, and she has side braids falling over her shoulders.

We cannot see her eyes, just the lower part of her face. She’s pressing her lips together as if holding her words, perhaps a smile. At first I thought the expression conveyed a lack of freedom to speak due to fear or shame. What drew me to this photo, when I looked at it then, was the statue in the hands of a young girl. The statue is a work of art, and the master is the young girl.

A second look makes me think this doll or statue is something she carries, as a reminder of her youth. The braids, the sea-blue nail polish and the doll are clues to who she is, who she might be if she wasn’t in jail. She’s more than a girl or woman in an orange jump suit, surrounded by the monotone colors of a jail-cell. It becomes evident the absence of her descriptive eyes and a doll without arms or legs. We only receive a forced smile, closed and signaling at a situation that is without remedy for now.

This could be an accident that the photographer fell upon. He may have asked her to hold the item, or at a moments notice the subject didn’t know what do and picked up the doll. Still this is a story the photographer is telling. It allows us to see past the preconceived notion of what we might expect.

By cutting out the eyes of the subject, we are left without the complete picture, and that is exactly what happens when someone enters the criminal system. The photographer is trying to convey the idea of something unfinished or cut out. Something has been stripped away, and what’s left is an incomplete understanding of a human being.

 

Opinion: Growing up

I’m not sure where I heard these words but they ring true: “growing up is more than resignation to the normal things as inevitable.” It’s a testament to what adulthood could be if we didn’t give up so easily. Every child is asked a question, what do you want to be when you grow up? And every child tries to answer in a few terse words, sometimes saying a job title or a career, always wanting our
approval. I want to be a nurse, a doctor, a painter, a teacher, an astronaut…As we get older we realize our profession is an extension of ourselves or something completely separate. Often it is not us, but simply what we have to do in order to pay the bills. At some point a job becomes your life, and if you truly love the hours you put into working— then you feel a sense of worth. Getting older also means little time for silliness, acting, playing different roles, dressing up—none of that magic that you once had as a child. The words to “settle down” are always there—get married, have kids, invest in real estate. Sometimes it feels like you’re checking off a list that doesn’t belong to you, conforming to the way things are supposed to be. But that small child is still there, saying, “I want magic!”

 

I want magic.

 

Art Walk

Biking one Saturday night on St. Claude, me and a friend stopped at various galleries as part of the once a month Art Walk. The air was cool as any winter day in the south when all you need is a jean jacket. At every gallery there was wine and snacks. I had to be careful not to drink too much otherwise I wouldn’t make it past gallery number three. The white wine was starting to sink in when I realized I couldn’t lock my bike properly.  There was a lot of ground to cover, but we managed to see six galleries before heading to another event across town. (I mention 3 here)

From the first gallery, Genius Loci.

“Oral history binds our present to our past, gives us a place to call home and people to share it with. Stories reflect the values of their tellers and speak to the realities of their lives in a ways that facts can never fully encompass.”

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The photographs in Genius Loci tell a shared story of the rural woodlands of American often with haunting and mysterious themes that lead themselves to the backdrop of being out there in nature, devious and foreboding. The photographs were taken by Antone Dolezal, Lara Shipley and Paul Thulin.

From the water (pictured above), by Lara Shipley reflects innocence and purity.  The contrast of the baby’s bare skin and white hair against the greenness of the water almost out of focus gives you as sense of distance. When I took the photo, a shadow of a man appeared, considering the theme of this photo, it foreshadows a possible future.

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Many of these photos made your skin crawl a little. The photo with the black glove over a machete, alludes to troubles in the forest, when you’re stranded or when you’re chopping wood and no ones around and night is approaching. The boys that scared me is a fuzzy, out of focus, photo but enough to see the main subject’s facial expression of “I dare you try that on me, you’ll regret it,” and behind him there’s a guy holding a bottle of liquor. The camera didn’t have enough time to capture his face, instead glazed through it. Still there’s a deviant expression of debauchery in the making.

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Where are they? And where are they going? We had all these ideas about what the photo meant before reading the title. We thought they saw something on the side and were slowing down. You could make out yellow lines behind them, indicating they were on a road, possibly a highway. I said, ” This is when you find yourself in the middle of nowhere.” “It makes me want to go on a road trip.” We both looked at the image, entranced, almost wanting to replace the subjects and be on our way to an unknown. The title is Waiting for the light.

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This photo was part of the framed vernacular prints: odd creepy photos including a dog with two heads. This particular one made was us shudder. The more we stared at the four women, the more we slipped into their world of rigidness and strict daily routines, we imagine these women possessed and forced upon anyone who met them. Being who we are we rebelled against the idea, cringing at the feeling their stern faces invoked. The four women all had a striking similarity, except for their height. Their clothes and hairstyles were the same, even how they stood with their hands tightly around their side or over their stomach, not letting anything escape. And behind them, the background was nothing more than gray barns and grass– a cruel world.

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Rachel David’s Holding Pattern was dark and sinister– a real torture, contemplating what the artist was thinking as she sculpted these pieces. One item reminded me of the mirror the evil queen from snow white looks at before she decides to kill her off. Where would you find these items? In the underworld where someone worse than hades rules over spirits. The entire exhibition was uniform; all the pieces had a resemblance to items formerly used in the spanish inquisition. But you didn’t have to enter any of them, just by staring, it made your blood turn over, looking at the pointy spikes, and grotesque alien arms.

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It’s possible the white wine had an effect, but once we fell upon the last gallery, the dancing music, the shatter in the night and the colorful photos, changed our opaque faces. The photos depicted happiness in the present intertwined with freedom discovered and now in full rendering. I loved the nakedness, the giving in to the landscape and the scenes unfolding to flirty nudes, suggestive glances and wild escapes. I left with a lightness of being.

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Moon over palmetto trees

Bike rides and walks through New Orleans.

I’m not sure what draws me to a particular place. It’s often instinct or a curiosity for something unknown—a break from the rudimentary. But what keeps me there is a sense of complexity and mystery that I know not how to explain.

 

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I chose to ignore my iPhone and follow the streets. I walked not knowing which street was next, eventually stumbling onto the famous Royal street and other landmarks. The houses looked older, though well-maintained in the French Quarter area. They were smaller than the ones on Esplanade Avenue where I was staying. They had cute little windows, balconies, low porches, and green vines falling over and intertwining with the columns. They reminded me of the old colonial style of the Spaniards. The colors varied from light purples to yellows to dark greens and reds. Mostly warm colors. Along with cars and bikes, horse carriages passed by with tour guides a top reverberating historical secrets. Their southern accents filled the small corners.

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I walked in on a circle of people watching a band play an assortment of instruments including the bass, violin and guitar. A southern banjo, bluesy sound emerged, mixing with the heat. It was a swell time to fan yourself in the cruel but inviting summer. I looked for the shade below a balcony. I listened to the metal strings and the craggy voices, staying a little longer until the music faded. A girl donated a 6 pack to the band. It was a good show.

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Down in the Garden District, I bumped into a cemetery. This one contained white marble tombstones mostly well-preserved. The trees stood tall above the white ruins. Patches of grass were peeking out from the crevices of the tombstones. Little lizards dashed from the corner every so often, hiding under leaves from the sun. It was incredibly hot with barely any place for shade. You could get lost here in the maze of tombstones, and possibly time travel to the 1800s. There was a calm sense of being among the ruins. You know you do not belong here. It’s sacred, but there’s something that draws you in. Here I felt the sun, the wind and life in the middle of death.

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On my bike I admired the pastel homes. The oak trees were still abundant, lining up two sides of the street. They looked down at me like old statues of past, monumental and green. The trees were an extension of the beautiful mansions reaching out from long ago. The heat beckoned me to imagine what it must have like when the area was developing between 1832 and 1900.  Now it was 2015 and I was biking through pot-holed streets, shaky at times specially with the company of cars.

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Hotel Monteleone, the place where Truman Capote claimed he was born. I came for the carousel bar, which spun around in the middle of a room. Tonight a band was playing at the far side on a low stage; it was soft jazz tunes that couldn’t wake up grandma. Still, the drinks were good. I sat there and ordered drink after drink with a friend. First Miel Blanco, Perfect Storm, and some more as the bar went around, time got older. The full rotation took about half an hour; it was turning rather slow to keep patrons from falling on their faces. I noticed my reflection in one of the mirrors at the top of the carousel. With every slow slip my facial features became sharpened and darker. The mirrors were outlined with fat bulbs, and between each one there was a carved face.

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On the early hours of Friday I walked down the platform heading through the middle of the swamp (Jean Lafitte National Historical Park). On each side large palmettos and cypress trees reigned, and I looking from below. Insects, birds, and other tiny creatures contributed to the chorus. I continued waking within the humid trap of this ecosystem until my head almost hit a web with a giant spider on the center. I missed it by a few inches. My height saved me from committing a grave mistake against the banana spider. It was the spider with the dia le los muertos face, black and white. Spider webs hung from tree to tree, sometimes covering large spaces. The pronothotary birds were here. I’m was told most people don’t see these bird too often but I’ve seen it twice in one year. The moist heat was becoming one with my skin. I could easily turn into a frog and jump into the dark swampy water. Later the rain came, taking breaks every so often.

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I took a Voodoo waking tour. I rarely ever take tours but this one explained the origins of this old religion and its connection to slavery which lasted from the early 1700 to 1864, when it was officially abolished in New Orleans. The first Voodoo circle was created in the town square, today Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park, of Tremé where slaves gathered on Sundays to dance. Tremé was the main neighborhood of free people of color. Back then it was separated by a wall from the French Quarter where all the Europeans lived. According to the tour guide, slaves didn’t work on Sundays, and that’s when they got together to exchange ideas, gossip, and share advice on how to survive. There was a mix of slaves from French and Spanish colonies, some coming from the Caribbean; they brought along rich traditions and customs from their ancestors, and what emerged was a new set of beliefs and spiritual practices. Slaves cleverly hid their rituals from Europeans and pretended to worship the same Christian saints, only for them they had other names and different spiritual powers. The gatherings also represented a way for slaves to escape the hardships of everyday life even if for a little, and find a creative output that could lead them to personal happiness.

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In popular culture Voodoo is portrayed as dark magic. Learning about its rich history and modern usage, Voodoo appears to be rooted in a naturalistic, magical world. On the day of the tour it was beautiful walking around and learning about Voodoo from a modern-day practitioner, and how they don’t conduct sacrifices or evil spells but they do talk to the spirits and make offerings.  One important figure that came up was Marie Laveau, a free person of color who worked as a hairdresser for the community of Europeans. She became an insider, aware of the latest gossip and business schemes. Later as a Voodoo priestess she was able to use those connections to her advantage and for the benefits of the black community, by eventually helping slaves escape. Madam Laveau also made potions and gris gris bags a staple of Voodoo.

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The group walked alongside Madam Laveau’s house in the French Quarter as the tour guide continue to explain her history. Almost close to being done, he held up a gris gris bag from his pocket to show us how one could make one. A few minutes later it began drizzling. We all looked up to the sky, turning darker. By the time the tour ended, the rain was picking up with full force. I went inside Felix’s Restaurant for lunch. When I was done, I walked to the door, exiting slowly, since the rain was coming down strong. I wanted to run, as others were doing. The wind was colder and the sun had all but faded. I heard the thunderous sky behind me as I made my way up the street.

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I don’t remember much from the night, but I remember the singer from Meschiya Lake (performing in 3muses), her old, soulful, raspy voice that was like a calling to stay in New Orleans and revel in the wildness. After the show on Frenchman Street, me and a friend went outside. I didn’t want to go home yet. People were pouring out of bars and restaurants. I heard trumpets, drums and people cheering. I saw what was beginning to turn into a group of people dancing. We joined and followed the musicians as they walked. I was curious to see where it would end. I was dancing, dancing in the streets. The lively bombastic, trumpet was my rebel call to take part in this stampede, and I didn’t care who objected to the moment.

I made a mishmash of the lyrics I heard that night from Meschiya Lake.

After midnight searching for me

Kiss me and you’ll find out

I done cut my good man’s throat

I want to reap what I sow

Send me to the electric chair

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When I arrived on St. Claude Avenue there wasn’t anyone in either direction. The long avenue was empty except for some scarcely laid out stores, colorful, odd and dirty, but most of them closed. It dawn on me that it was Sunday, and nothing would be open. I was ready to hang my head after the long walk. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was still going strong. I walked down store after store, telling myself I would come back when they were open. I headed further down the avenue and made a turn somewhere, which led me to a red church with an ominous clock, further down was a big yellow drawing near an abandoned building that said READ, followed by a railroad just steps away. An impending noise came hurling down the tracks. The train. I walked back. I noticed more street art and random writings. There was a sign on a poll, which said,” Nobody tells the truth.” On another street or perhaps the same, reigning over me were these heads on spikes in a yard behind a fence. Finally I saw somewhere to rest my weary self. I sat down in booty’s street food then went to Siberia to hear a group from the Balkans with a big drums, violins and crowds dancing.

 

 

 

 

Birding Hikes: Van Cortlandt Park

I was heading to Woodland on the 4 train with less passengers at every stop—a clear sign of traveling away from Manhattan. By the end of the ride I was finally breathing Bronx air, and it felt wide and endless. Once off the stop, me and a friend searched for the Van Cortlandt Park entrance. The east of side of the park didn’t have a marked entrance like the west side, so we decided for the closest entry point.

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Ruins on the west side [Cynthia Via]
When I tell people about the park, they follow with “that’s way up there.” No I’m not going off to the moon just yet. By train it takes hour if you’re coming from Queens, but by car, only 20 minutes (with one toll), even less from Manhattan. Van Cortlandt has 1,146 acres and is one of NYC’s last relic native woodlands, and the third largest park in the metro area. It’s home to a freshwater lake, marshland,  a forest with 100-year-old oak trees. Also sports fields, running/biking trails, a pool, and the Riverdale Stables— so if you see a horse in the park, it’s totally normal. On this particular Saturday, we had the whole space to ourselves—well, almost: people were scattered around but not in abundance as is the case for Central Park, where you’re elbow to elbow searching for a proper place to relax.

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East side fallen tree on the Van Cortlandt lake. [Cynthia Via]
We made it our goal to walk to the John Muir trail (1.5 miles). At times we didn’t know if we were walking the right way. We consulted the online map, but after a while that got tiring, and why ruin nature with our cellphones? I figure we just follow our sense of direction. The park was covered in thick trees and ground shrubs, and the trails were kept clean except for a few fallen trees likely from hurricane Sandy. At the onset of the trail to our left we saw the roots of a huge tree over on its trunk. It was the grandmother of all trees, fat and large. We kept walking, and stopped every so often when we heard bird sounds. We saw Red-winged blackbirds, and plenty of American robins. At some point the trail cut off and we were left in the middle of a highway, but then we found the entrance to next part of the trail and kept walking. The trails here were farther away from the road, deeper into the woodland. For the most part it was flat with some incline. It’s best to wear your hiking shoes since you’re bound to find rocky paths ahead. We inspected nooks and crannies for inhabitants. At some point we saw a nest of  what appeared to be small Blue Jays, but we couldn’t be sure, since it was way up on a tall tree, and my binoculars couldn’t see that far.

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West Side, wider trail. [Cynthia Via]
The spring air was still lovely underneath the canopy of trees. When we peaked out from the green fullness, the heat fell on us, with the balmy wind coming and going. Though most of the trails are clean, I was disappointed to see pieces of candy wrappers on the floor. Several trees had plastic bags hanging down like abandoned ghosts. Random bottles were floating in the lake and marshes. It’s awful to be in nature and have the reminder of our addiction to plastic (it always creeps up). Plastic doesn’t magically disappears in secluded forests. When plastic breaks down it creepy toxins harming the environment, wildlife and humans. Animals confuse plastic for food, and since it can’t be digested they eventually die a low death, and there’s more. At once I thought, let’s start picking up garbage, but neither of us had any bags, and who knows where the next garbage container would appear. This summer I want to volunteer in the park or just go around picking garbage if no one wants to join me.

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Red-winged Blackbirds picking fish.

The noises from Common Grackles and unseen warblers made me slip back into the walk. We began crossing over to the west side.  The trails were wider and rockier than the flatter counterpart of the east. The trees had also grown taller. Throughout the trail we fussed over finding the John Muir Trail, and once we were on it, we couldn’t wait to get out. Now we were following some pink trail marks. We stopped suddenly when we saw a brown-colored butterfly with eyespots on its wings. To avoid us it blended successfully with the dry brown leaves on the floor.

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Rest stop on the east side of Van Cortlandt lake.

Farther ahead, tall grass reached above our height: an unlikely marshland in the middle of this “urban” park. I tried to take a peek through the gaps of grass, but it was too dense. Some of the edges were outlined by a fence, preventing people from walking straight through the marshes. Even without the gate, common sense dictates that you won’t find easy footing, and what’s worse is invading protected areas. Up ahead where the forest took over again, we peeked through a small opening out to the pond. I was a sniper browsing the distant landscape. On some branches over the water were a couple of Red-winged Blackbirds, Catbirds, and Tree Swallows making their rounds in the sky, and eventually confusing us with their mad disarray. On my far right, a white egret was playing along the reeds. Some weeks later in the same pond,  I would see a group of turtles on a fallen tree truck basking in hot weather.

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Rest stop on the east side of Van Cortlandt lake. [Cynthia Via]
Once we saw the view in the photo above, we decided to take a well-deserved rest. I’m not sure how long we walked but now it was close to lunch time. All I had to eat were some meager cashew nuts. In front of us were lanky, thin trees with yellow flowers swaying to the wind. That’s when I saw something flicker; it was a tiny fat warbler. I couldn’t believe it! A yellow warbler came to visit our chosen rest stop. It was flying restlessly from branch to branch, sometimes staying still, enough for me to see it through the binoculars. When it heard us make a fuss, it was gone! Knowing how to properly use binoculars comes in handy with these tiny birds. And with that we started making our way out. Close to the end of Van Corlandt some adult Blue Jays bade us farewell with their loud jeers.

Stay tuned for upcoming VCP’s events.

The muddy waters of January and the absence of sun

We left when the cold got to our bones and our hands were popsicles.

Astoria Pool snow desert. Cynthia Via.
Astoria Pool snow desert. Cynthia Via.

For a couple of weeks I’ve wanted to erase the miserable existence of these winter months. I could take the holiday cold with the occasional walk in 30-40 degree weather, but January brings an intolerable coldness; the one that leaves the bitter cold on tips of fingers and toes even after entering a warm room. This bleak weather makes me run home instead of taking leisurely walks after work, or while with family and friends.

The sun lies low these days, and when it finally shows up its nothing but a mirage; a false sun that continues onto February. I like taking walks, observing my surroundings, and being nostalgic around nature. I usually take walks on Sundays when I visit the local organic market in my neighborhood. During sunnier days I take my time picking the best veggies, and striking conversations with other residents and produce sellers. This rightfully contradicts the quickness of cold days when everyone is too frigid to stand around. A quick hello or see you later will do.

This past Sunday I could barely stand in line when a small girl decided to be indecisive in front of the baked goods. “I want a cupcake daddy!” “No, that one.“ “Is that chocolate?” he asked, to which the seller responded, “No its buckwheat.” The dad whispered something about the girl not liking buckwheat. While they debated, my hands froze as I tried to hold my pumpernickel bread, marble cake, and my change. I noticed some of the usual produce sellers were absent. The air was too cold for some vegetables. The beets lay frozen, there were no sweet potatoes, and there was no use in asking for lettuce. All I bought was milk, fish, bread, and some apples and onions.

Snow has covered the streets for what seems an endless length of time. It started snowing again over the weekend, making the fresh fallen snow top the old crusty bottom. Sunday was a good day despite by reservations. After the organic market I headed to Astoria Park with my family, and we walked among the skinny trees. I saw a couple of people sliding down the hill near the entrance to the pool. It wasn’t so bad going out there, walking around, trying to capture, zoom, and fix the light with my camera. Up above the pool, there is a roof area accessible through the side stairs. I was planning on leaving early when my sister suggested to go up the stairs. The sight was beautiful. The whole pool was covered white. The lamps below peeked out, way over the snow, and the lifeguard’s guarding posts looked miniscule and abandoned. We left when the cold got to our bones and our hands were popsicles. Below I glanced at two kids sledding down. They continued to make the best out of the snow—getting up after a fall, or when their sled reached the end, they walked lazily up the hill to start over.